Sweeping statement begins caretaker's revolution
Interim coach Stuart Lancaster has done everything right so far, writes Eddie Butler
GIVEN the exhaustion of the English patient after all the prodding and vile emanations of the past three months, it could be argued that Stuart Lancaster could hardly go wrong.
If the interim coach had suggested swapping Pennyhill Park for Lourdes and reduced his call to arms to a request that his country say a little prayer for him, he would have been commended for his unshakable belief in the power of the sporting miracle cure.
It turns out, however, that Lancaster is a coach of reason, guided not south, but to the expanses of West Park Rugby Club outside Leeds. Yorkshire before blind faith. England will train at a staging post on the way to Murrayfield, the location chiming perfectly with a post-World Cup reconnection with the earth.
It is a sign of positive restlessness: to be prepared to uproot and start afresh. But even a disciple of reason must worry about the restrictions of time, his existence merely as England's temporary coach.
Presumably at some stage, the dart of ambition has pricked Lancaster and he has heard a little voice in his head saying that the caretaker may yet be handed the keys as the landlord.
Success in the Six Nations would help. The championship, after all, is his one and only promotional campaign. He could have picked any number of old hands with any number of caps and justified their selection. He could simply have said: "England and rugby revolution do not go together."
Instead, he took a broom to the squad. Not a stiff-bristled yard sweeper with the power to shift the crustiest of dung, but a soft brush that gently eased Mike Tindall, Mark Cueto and Nick Easter into featherbed international retirement. So, Lancaster could have done nothing wrong, but has instead done everything right. So far. What comes next, when England have to start playing?
Should they be different? Yes, because gone are the days when their front five were so formidable that they could impose the rhythm of their hobnailed boots on the game, when the role of the three sets of decision-makers -- the back row, half-backs and centres -- was simply to keep the heavyweights pointed in the right direction.
Or no, not necessarily. It was a close-run thing at the World Cup on the style front. France fell very much into the same bracket as Australia (before Berrick Barnes arrived), Argentina and England; that is, sides who tightened rather than expanded at the tournament. New Zealand and Wales, by contrast, stuck to a less constricted approach, but the margin of victory for adventure over caution was the single point that separated France and the All Blacks in the final. Lancaster could say the margins were so fine that the argument for converting England, three-time World Cup finalists, isn't compelling.
Rugby is being steered, through directives and guidelines for referees, towards a more visibly accessible format. There is still a place for a vigorous scrum, a driving maul, but only as part of a package.
England may not yet have a specialist No 7, but Lancaster's back row selections are built for running and handling. Ben Morgan, the new No 8, is conditioned to take the ball forward fast and provide Lee Dickson a free flow of ruck ball.
What to do with this speedily delivered ball is more novel. Charlie Hodgson is no great place-kicker on the international stage and has not exactly been Jonny Wilkinson in the tackle. But he passes the ball better than perhaps any England fly-half ever (that sounds more momentous than it is, since invention from 10 and beyond remains the Siberian tiger of the England rugby landscape).
They say Hodgson's tackling has improved, which is to be welcomed I suppose, if only to confirm, in the absence of the injured Toby Flood, his place in the team. To be honest, if England lose because Scotland score a couple of tries down his channel, the revolution will not really have happened. But if Hodgson and Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt can work Chris Ashton and Dave Strettle into space, then Ben Foden can finish the scoring job from fullback. And England can repeat the old chant of the radicals: "You score four, we'll score more."
There, easy. Except, of course, it isn't. Patience is a terribly elusive virtue on the international field, especially in a young side bursting to make an immediate impression. And Scotland are not exactly going to agree to anything prompted by England in the name of progress. They may have, as the saying goes, their own agenda.
What Stuart Lancaster needs -- and what he cannot possibly yet know he possesses -- is the gift of luck at this level. The comparison is made between Wales at this stage in 2008, after the World Cup woes of 2007, and England right now. Warren Gatland opened his Welsh coaching career with a win at Twickenham. Brilliant -- but not without its luck. A Grand Slam followed. Should Lancaster do the same with his England, the only thing he will have to drop this year is the word "caretaker".
Sunday Indo Sport